ALBUQUERQUE, JAN. 13 -- Cleveland Browns linebacker Mike Johnson has never been a conformist -- in anything he's ever tried. He grew up in Prince George's County, went to De Matha High School, and plans to buy a house in the Washington, D.C., area soon. It would seem Johnson might be doubly excited this week, first about his participation in Sunday's AFC championship game against the Denver Broncos, and about the chance of playing against his childhood heroes, the Washington Redskins, in the Super Bowl.
But the Redskins aren't Johnson's childhood heroes. He didn't even like the Redskins. Never set foot in RFK Stadium for a Redskins game. In fact, Johnson made the following startling revelation this afternoon in front of his locker after the Browns had finished practice:
"I was a Dallas Cowboys fan," he said. "I was never a Skins fan. My parents were, everybody around me was and still is. They all loved the Redskins so much that I just couldn't take it. I've always been the argumentative type, the person who loves to do the opposite of what everybody else does. Yeah, I've taken a lot of heat over it. But it's no fun just going along with everybody else."
Johnson, 25, never has been accused of going with the status quo. He was always a standout football player, first at De Matha and then at Virginia Tech. But he got more fun from being a bookworm who had as many full academic scholarship offers as football scholarship offers.
Pittsburgh called, but Johnson went to Virginia Tech, largely because VPI had an excellent program in architecture. After four years of superb play sometimes overshadowed by teammate and sackmaster Bruce Smith, the Cleveland Browns drafted Johnson in the first round.
But, of course, he chose to play in the U.S. Football League.
And when he came to the Browns from the USFL, Johnson had adjustments to make when he arrived as the 1986 season started. Nevertheless, once again defying convention, he crashed through training camp, displacing veteran Anthony Griggs.
Johnson has started every game this season except one, and that's because he was injured. On a defensive team that includes nose tackle Bob Golic, linebackers Eddie Johnson and Clay Matthews, and all-universe cornerbacks Frank Minnifield and Hanford Dixon, Mike Johnson is the Unknown Defender outside Cleveland.
But Mike Johnson also is the Browns' leading tackler. His 98 total tackles in the regular season were 26 more than Matthews'. And Johnson was second on the team in fumbles caused with three.
While the Browns coaches weren't necessarily expecting team-leading numbers from Johnson, they knew he was a promising player. Smith, the all-pro defensive end for the Buffalo Bills, led the nation in sacks when he was a senior at Virginia Tech and Johnson was a junior. But Johnson led Tech's defense in every other category.
"Last season, Mike didn't get to camp until the USFL settlement was well over," Browns Coach Marty Schottenheimer said. "But we expected him to be a fine inside linebacker. We had him highly rated from the beginning. He was our second first-round draft pick in the supplemental draft."
And Johnson hardly was hurt by playing two years for Jim Mora with the Baltimore/Philadelphia Stars. Four linebackers from that team are in the NFL, including Saints Pro-Bowler Sam Mills.
"For a guy to come in from the run-and-shoot that teams played in the USFL, to play well almost right away in the NFL, where intellect and mental preparation are such a big part, is really an accomplishment," said Eddie Johnson, who has been Mike Johnson's mentor since he joined the Browns.
But this is hardly the story of a football prodigy, a kid who decided when he was 5 years old that he'd play pro football or die.
Johnson didn't have to worry about an athletic ride, because Brown University and Carnegie Mellon were offering different kinds of free rides. "Both offered full academic scholarships," Johnson said. "About 10th grade, I just became fascinated with architecture.
"Nobody in the family was an architect; it was just something I enjoyed, the fascination with structure, harmony, continuity. I just really didn't consider professional football to be a priority.
"I even got into the habit of really downplaying the athletic side of my life. I never believed an education was 'something to fall back on.' But I began to make some all-America teams, and I thought, 'Hmmmm.'
"I had this professor -- his name is Donald Sunshine and he was an instructor in my major for three years -- who told me, 'You don't have to dislike football to be an architect.' "
Still every time Johnson pulls a muscle or hurts a knee, as he did recently, he knows a career in architecture could be coming sooner than he and his wife Deidre might like.
"Don't get me wrong, I love football," Johnson said. "I loved the USFL, too. I remember us getting evicted from Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, having to practice in a small fenced-in park between train tracks. But that group of guys we had never moaned and groaned. I guess it was a long time ago."